As the last Ice Age came to an end, Florida’s hungry, semi-nomadic, big game hunting Paleoindian culture gave way to the more sedentary Archaic culture, as climate changed from cool and dry to warm and wet. Food sources were becoming more reliable as glaciers were melting and sea levels were beginning to rise, resulting in a decrease in the width of the state with the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean drawing nearer to present day levels.
Prickly pears and persimmons, along with the state tree of Florida, the Sabal palm, commonly called “Swamp Cabbage”, were and still are common food sources for early Floridians. Acorns, sea grapes, and cocoplums are not a common part of our diets today but they are still found in abundance around the state and were also a major food source at an earlier time. But it took thousands of years for early man to adopt these new foods.
The prickly pear, also known as Indian fig, is still used today and commonly found throughout the state. For the Archaic Indians it was probably considered a seasonal treat. Not only can you purchase it at the market today, I’ve seen it growing in many of my neighbor’s yards here in the Tampa Bay area.
It’s long oval red spiny fruit stands out again the green paddle shape of the cactus branches. This sweet looking and sweet tasting fruit is difficult to clean so I purchase mine from the market with most of the spines and glochids already removed. It is still a lot of work to get to the edible part of a prickly pear. It can irritate sensitive skin since all of the spines and glochids are usually not removed. The early Archaic Indians would roll the fruit in gritty sand or char off the prickly parts over a flame.
Here is how I do it for my Prickly Pear Drizzle:
A glochid is the barbed hair-like prickly part of the pear, and they may cause inflammation or discomfort when embedded in your skin. SO BE CAREFUL TO AVOID THE GLOCHID.
Here are some of the important tools when working with a prickly pear: gloves, tongs and duct tape.
It is a lot of work to get to the edible part of a prickly pear but the unique taste was probably a refreshing treat for the Archaic Indians. The biggest challenge is to keep the prickly parts from sticking you, not just the ones you can see but the tiny hair-like ones you can’t see. I usually mange to end up with one or two and they are irritating, but I remove them with a piece of tape. The Archaic Indians would roll them around in ashes to burn them off, or rub them with sand or sandpaper-like material such as sharkskin.
You can try holding the pear with tongs over an open flame and burn off the glochids but my choice is as follows:
1) Wearing gloves, skin the fruit by slicing off both ends, discard ends.
2) Make a long vertical slice down the body of the pear.
3) Pull or cut away skin and discard. If you freeze the fruit at this point, it makes the fruit softer and easier to extract the juice when you thaw it out.
4) Separate seeds from pulp by pressing through a sieve and catching the juice in bowl.
Or pulse in a blender until liquefied then strain thorough fine sieve, mesh strainer or cheesecloth.
5) Juice can be used as a beverage, or it can be boiled to thicken with added sweetener to use as syrup. Two prickly pears will make about 1/2 cup juice.